“Dear Madame, if you accept my invitation to take part in our latest campaign… you will answer Our Lady's request. Am I exaggerating? Absolutely not! When organizing this action, I thought first of all about those people who sincerely love Mary. I thought about you… because I have not had any contact with you for some time. It worries me a lot. Please contact our Association urgently. I am very worried about you at this difficult time” - this is an excerpt from a letter that a Polish pensioner received last year during the pandemic. Further, the sender of the letter encourages the addressee, an 80 years old woman, to send money to the society for its urgent initiatives. What is this organization and for what kind of important activities does it need financial support from a pensioner?
Holy Mary Scam
From the letter we learn that it's the Mother of God who urgently needs money (not anyone else), because the Piotr Skarga Association of Christian Culture has to send pictures of Mother Mary to homes all over Poland. €6,5 will allow them to send pictures to 11 families, €11 to 18 houses, and €22 to 37. The author argued: "Each of your donations will be your generous act towards people who heard the Heart of Mary and you will contribute to someone's conversion." The letter was accompanied by a transfer form, which is called a coupon. “Please do not hesitate and use your coupon today. The donation can be made at any bank, at the post office or via the Internet,” he wrote (this is the original way of writing). The letter was signed by Slawomir Olejniczak, the president of the Piotr Skarga Association from Krakow. This type of correspondence is received by millions of Poles, usually poor retirees. Some of these letters have been sent regularly for years and many of the addressees "use the coupon".
Polish journalists have long called people associated with that group Skargowcy. And Skargowcy never had any formal links with the Catholic Church. They call themselves a lay Catholic movement.
Already in 2008, the Metropolitan Curia in Krakow due to the large number of complaints about the insistent tone of letters sent by the Piotr Skarga Association of Christian Culture asking for a donation, explained that the Association is a private organization and has no institutional ties to the Church. "The Association did not submit its statute for the approval of the Church authorities, and therefore cannot be treated as a religious association recognized by the Church," wrote the Church hierarchs from Krakow. Skargowcy have been criticized before, even by the right-wing conservative press. In 2003, "Gazeta Polska" published an article entitled "Holly Mary scam": "Association sends out medallions and pictures with the image of the Mother of God, encouraging people to support its activities financially. The Krakow curia is dissociating itself from the group. Contrary to declarations, it does not follow the canonic law. The association is also campaigning against the European Union.”
10 years ago, many clergymen warned against tricksters. Piotr Skarga Association was mentioned next to hypnotists, healers and herb sellers. Today the group is one of the richest and most influential ideological organizations in Poland. In 2013, the Association established Ordo Iuris - a think tank composed of conservative lawyers who have been penetrating power structures since 2016 - several of its members are high-ranking state officials now. But the ambitions of Skargowcy, more and more often called religious fundamentalists by liberal and leftist circles, go much further. As revealed recently, the Krakow group successfully supports the formation and activities of similar organizations in the region of Central and Eastern Europe: in Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and Slovakia.
Piotr Skarga Association of Christian Culture is the Polish branch of the religious movement called Tradition, Family, Property established in Brazil (TFP is a global movement that fights against women’s rights, gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights; it is also hostile to the left wing, Protestants, and progressive Christian tendencies). The movement is very controversial in several countries. In 1984, Venezuela banned it from operating after an investigation by the Prosecutor General's Office. In 1995, France included TFP on the list of sects.
“Their goal is clear: creating an environment that will have the greatest possible impact in shaping legislation and influencing local governments. On the one hand, the organization lobbies to incorporate points from its radical agenda into national legislation. On the other hand, manages to exert decision-making power by placing TFP-affiliated members in instrumental positions in important and respected governmental and corporate institutions. As such, TFP is not an ordinary non-governmental organization, it is a political engine that idealizes a medieval way of life and aspires to inflict their ideology on everyone else”, writes Neil Datta, Secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in his report called “Modern-day Crusaders in Europe. Tradition, Family and Property: Analysis of a Transnational, Ultra-conservative, Catholic-inspired Influence Network”.
The Polish branch of the movement was registered in 1999. The start-up funds were provided by the TFP leaders in France and Germany. They also provided know-how on how to effectively conduct mail-order campaigns and successfully collect money from the Catholic community. The movement in Krakow was initiated by a Brazilian of Polish origin - Leonardo Przybysz and Slawomir Olejniczak (the one who signed the letter to an 80 year old pensioner). The latter heads the association he founded with Slawomir Skiba and Arkadiusz Stelmach - former members of the Monarchist Club.
In 2001, Piotr Skarga Association of Christian Culture, in order to improve its activities, established the Piotr Skarga Foundation Institute of Social and Religious Education. The latter, in turn, established the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture Foundation in 2013 - the most famous anti-abortion organization in Poland. Today, the Ordo Iuris community includes, among others, two judges of the Supreme Court, the deputy minister of foreign affairs and a member of the National Development Council at the President of the Republic of Poland office. Ordo Iuris is one of the most visible extremely conservative think tanks in Poland. It's involved where it is necessary to oppose "LGBT ideology" and "vulgar sex education" (especially in schools), fight for “family rights", protect “traditional marriages” and fight against their "discrimination". The use of war rhetoric is not a coincidence - from the Ordo Iuris information it can be concluded that we live in a terrifying world in which "attempts to dismantle families, supported by the extreme left" are increasing, "a dangerous judicial offensive of the LGBT movement is underway, which strikes at the institutions of marriage as a union of women and a man", and activists of proliferation movements are "harassed for their allegiance to the cause of defending human life" (quotes are taken from Ordo Iuris newsletters).
The organization aims to gain direct influence on the government, and since the organization closely cooperates with the right-wing government of Law and Justice, it has been very successful in this regard since 2017. Ordo Iuris uses all existing legal paths – it sends opinions and comments on legal acts, it creates its own bills, it collects signatures for petitions, it prepares reports on the effects of existing regulations, it speaks in international forums, and it represents persons whose matters relate to the subject of interest to the Institute. If they would do only this, we would be dealing with a very active legal think tank. However, the activities of Ordo Iuris do not end here. First of all, the Institute's experts enter the power structures.
Because there was a conflict between the Polish and French factions of TFP (the Poles turned out to be much more radical in their actions and the TFP authorities accused them of insufficient financial support for the movement), today the Piotr Skarga Association and the Piotr Skarga Foundation are warring camps that are suing for property. It is only thanks to this internal struggle that we know today how rich and powerful the Polish TFP movement is, because so far no one has managed to determine it (the organization lives on donations, so it does not have to submit financial statements).
As recently revealed by a journalist from the Reporters Foundation, Piotr Skarga Association and Foundation together have accumulated a considerable fortune over the years of its activity in Poland (including numerous apartments in Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Bialystok, a luxurious training centre in southern Poland, its own shipping center and a historic tenement house in Krakow). This property largely comes from "donations" received by the foundation by sending pictures and medals with the images of saints to millions of people, as well as appeals for "whatever grace".
In the autumn of 2016, thousands of Polish women took to the streets in what became known as the ’Black Marches’ (and then it grew into “Women's Strike” movement) to protest a draft law which would seek to implement a total ban on abortion, removing the few permissible cases where it was still legally available under Poland’s already restrictive law and even providing for the imprisonment of women who have an abortion. In March 2017, the then Foreign affairs Minister of Croatia, decided to take a position against the She Decides global fundraising initiative (Shedecides.com) on sexual and reproductive rights and, further, to instruct Croatian diplomats to convince other European Union Member States to take a similarly hostile position. Earlier, in 2013, a petition gathering nearly 40,000 signatures in Estonia against same-sex unions forced the parliament to temporarily halt its deliberations on its civil partnership legislation. While the three political events share a similar socially conservative objective, they appear otherwise unrelated, as they occur at different times, in different national contexts and are centered on different issues. Closer inspection of the main protagonists involved in each, however, reveals some hitherto unknown connections. In Poland, the organization most prominently involved in promoting the abortion ban was the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture Foundation. Ordo Iuris drafted the legislation under consideration, and both presented and defended it before parliament and to the public. In Croatia, individuals affiliated with the organization Vigilare gained privileged access to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to encourage him to adopt a more traditionalist perspective in Croatia’s diplomacy. In Estonia, the initiator and promoter of the petition which reached over 500,000 of Estonia’s 1.2 million citizens was the organization Sihtasutus Perekonna ja Traditsiooni Kaitseks (SAPTK) – Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition. All three organizations, Ordo Iuris, Vigilare and SAPTK, appear to be the national antennae of the transnational, socially conservative, Catholic-inspired lay organization called TFP. All of them are financed by the Polish branch of the ultra-conservative movement.
In October last year, the Constitutional Tribunal in Warsaw announced that the existing abortion law in Poland (one of the most rigorous in Europe) is inconsistent with the Constitution. The day before the verdict, Ordo Iuris sent to the Tribunal an opinion amici curiae, signed by 31 ultra-conservative international organizations. It turns out that in fact it is a network of institutions, groups and figures related to each other and to the Piotr Skarga Association in Krakow. Over the past few years, some of them have attempted to influence the decisions of governments or parliaments in Central Europe. For anyone who does not follow ultra-catholic movements, the names of those organizations might not ring a bell. But in fact, they are backed by influential people who have been building, funding and coaching an international network of far-right activists for many years.
Where the money go
One such group is the Institute of Christian Culture (Krikščioniškosios Kultūros Institutas, KKI), a Lithuanian organization founded and controlled by Skargowcy. The journalistic investigations revealed that Krakow organizations (the Piotr Skarga Foundation and Association) invested at least EUR 280,000 in expansion in Lithuania. On the KKI Facebook page you can find posts about "liberal-communist barbarians", encouraging the fight against "homopropaganda" and "satanic" Halloween, as well as conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. The KKI's financial reports show that both Polish TFP organizations (the Piotr Skarga Foundation and Association) remain its main source of funding (in 2018, Poles transferred KKI EUR 115,000, and a year later it was EUR 137,000). However, the Lithuanian group is becoming more and more successful in collecting donations. In 2017, these were insignificant amounts, a year later over EUR 15,000 and in 2019 already EUR 58,000.
Like the activists of the Lithuanian KKI, there were Estonian citizens Varro Vooglaid and Markus Järvi who have regularly visited Krakow since 2012. They founded the Estonian Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK) and wanted to learn from Poles how to collect donations. SAPTK was created to fight the proposed civil partnership legislation. Slawomir Olejniczak joined the council of the Estonian organization in 2013, shortly thereafter praised the Foundation for its first success, which was sending over 38,000 signatures against same-sex marriage to the Estonian parliament. Piotr Skarga's institutions sent money to the Estonian organization at least three times: EUR 40,500 in 2012 for the creation of SAPTK; over EUR 105,000 in 2013 for campaigns and publications and EUR 13,000 in 2016. After training in fundraising, the Estonian organization is moving like a storm. SAPTK prides itself on collecting as much from donors as most popular Estonian political parties. Twice a year, thousands of people make small contributions that bring in EUR 400,000 of SAPTK's annual income.
The operating model also proved successful in Slovakia. One of such groups is the Slovakia Christiana Foundation, against which the spokesman of the Slovak Bishops' Conference warned last year. The organization was established in August 2016 by the Piotr Skarga Foundation in Krakow. The administrator of the group is Martin Komár, who does not hide his connections with the TFP movement, but does not want to disclose the amount of payments made by Poles to support the organization in Slovakia. In 2017 the Polish organization sent EUR 40,000 to its Slovak branch and equipment and publications worth EUR 70,000. At that time, Slovakia Christiana managed to collect almost EUR 330,000 on its own from individual donations. A year later, this amount increased to over EUR 695,000.
Similar organizations, founded by Polish ultra-conservatives, operate in Croatia (Vigilare) and Hungary (Foundation for Christian Civilization).
According to the findings of the Reporters Foundation, only in 2019 organizations related to the Krakow group collected over EUR 2 million in four countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and Slovakia). Additionally, Piotr Skarga Association gained EUR 6.3 million from donations in Poland which is more than the Lux Veritatis foundation (related to father Tadeusz Rydzyk - LINK) can raise among the viewers and listeners of Radio Maryja and TV Trwam.
Years of great damage
The history of the TFP movement shows that each time an organization became rich and influential, there was an internal conflict, followed by the slow disintegration of the group and its capabilities. This was the case in Brazil in the 1980s, and then in France in the 1990s. Recently, the conflict also divided the Polish organization. Until recently, the Piotr Skarga Association and Foundation were two heads of the same body. Today the Association is managed by the "Old Guard" and the Foundation is ruled by the young. They are suing each other for property. Is this the beginning of their end? I'm afraid not yet. Today, Ordo Iuris is fighting for Poland to reject the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. The Presidium of the Polish Bishops' Conference has already supported their initiative.
Right-wing parties have scared us so much with Middle Eastern religious fundamentalists that we have not noticed how dangerous local extremely conservative and Catholic movements are. We will face the effects of their discriminatory laws for many years to come.